Predictably, Piniella is correct

Devil Rays: When Lou Piniella said his team would escape the AL East cellar, most saw it as a joke. With the astute manager in third place, no one is laughing anymore.

July 05, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - It was a typical Lou Piniella epiphany.

During the endless string of banquets and luncheons that required his presence last winter, the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made one of those bold predictions that always find their way into print, and usually come back to haunt him.

He guaranteed that the Devil Rays - who, incidentally, have never finished higher than last during their brief and inauspicious history - would not finish last this year, even though every other team in the American League East had made significant offseason upgrades.

"I said that at a banquet in Tampa," Piniella said. "The next day in Bradenton, I said we'd finish at .500. If we had had a couple more luncheons, we would be going to the World Series."

Piniella can laugh now. The Devil Rays arrive at Camden Yards today comfortably in third place and over .500, but that prediction didn't look very good when they were 10-28 in mid-May.

"It did look stupid that I said that, and I reminded myself that I am out of the predicting business," Piniella said. "But I knew we were a better team than that."

So Piniella has learned his lesson, right?

Not exactly.

Only moments after insisting he really was done with predictions, somebody asked him what the near future might hold for the now-surprising Devil Rays.

"I'm going to be cautious ... let these kids play and let them have fun and let them do what they are capable of doing," said Piniella, suddenly the fatherly voice of reason, then just as suddenly the same, old Lou.

"But me, personally, I'd like to take a shot at the Red Sox."

The man is a walking, talking bundle of contradictions, and he isn't going to apologize for it. He is one of the most emotional managers in the game, and at the same time one of the most calculated. If you're looking for a comparison, try Earl Weaver without the mean streak.

He was a solid player who won two World Series rings with the New York Yankees and picked up another as manager of the Cincinnati Reds team that upended the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in 1990.

During a decade as manager of the Seattle Mariners, he won three American League West titles, and his 2001 team tied the major league record for regular-season victories with 116.

No one disputes he is one of the most accomplished managers of his era, yet it's sometimes hard to get past the image of Piniella picking up a base and sailing it like a Frisbee.

"My perception was like that of a lot of people ... great competitor, great leader ... but I had no idea what kind of astute baseball man he is," Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "He's a great judge of talent, what it takes to win, what buttons to push in the clubhouse. He's as astute a baseball man as I'll ever be around."

He might just be crazy like a fox.

Even though he jokingly rebuked himself for setting the bar so high for his young team this year, he had a reasonable explanation for his upbeat offseason appraisal of the Devil Rays.

"A manager should be enthusiastic about his team," Piniella said. "You should let your players know you feel good about them. Let the fans know we're out to accomplish some things for them."

The Devil Rays have far exceeded anyone's expectations to this point in the season. They reeled off a club-record 12-game winning streak on the way back from that horrible start and became the first team in major league history to fall 18 games under .500 and get back above sea level in the same season.

And don't laugh. The Red Sox aren't out of reach. The Devil Rays could make a serious run at second place with a big series against the Orioles - starting with today's day-night doubleheader at Oriole Park.

"You've got to be [impressed]," said New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. "We saw a lot of them in spring training and then the Japan trip. They have melded together real well. They have some veterans who have fit in real well with their young players, and they've got some very good young players."

Piniella, 60, has been the Devil Rays manager for less than 1 1/2 seasons - so he can't take full credit for the solid player development progress that has been made on his watch - but LaMar does say he has been the catalyst for the organizational turnaround that appears to be taking shape.

"The passion has never left the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' organization to bring a championship team to the Tampa Bay area," LaMar said. "The passion never left, but the momentum left.

"Hiring Lou Piniella and bringing him back to Tampa will be recognized as the most important move in club history. He has brought the momentum back."

It hasn't been a cakewalk. Piniella set the modest goal of winning 70 games last year, but the Devil Rays barely avoided losing 100 (63-99) in his first season. He kept his cool during the 10-28 start this year - and said he never lost faith the club was better than that record - but he had to wonder what he had gotten himself into.

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